List of musical dynamics, articulations and their meanings

Dynamics and articulation are about how each note is played. Without incorporating these into your playing, music will sound ‘one-dimensional’. Below is a list of what you must know to take your performances to the next level.

Dynamics

Dynamics are indicators of the relative intensity or volume of a musical line (more information can be found on Italian Music Terms).

Music dynamic pianississimo.svg Pianississimo
Extremely soft. Very infrequently does one see softer dynamics than this, which are specified with additional ps.
Music dynamic pianissimo.svg Pianissimo
Very soft. Usually the softest indication in a piece of music, though softer dynamics are often specified with additional ps.
Music dynamic piano.svg Piano
Soft. Usually the most often used indication.
Music dynamic mezzo piano.svg Mezzo piano
Literally, half as soft as piano.
Music dynamic mezzo forte.svg Mezzo forte
Similarly, half as loud as forte. If no dynamic appears, mezzo-forte is assumed to be the prevailing dynamic level.
Music dynamic forte.svg Forte
Loud. Used as often as piano to indicate contrast.
Music dynamic fortissimo.svg Fortissimo
Very loud. Usually the loudest indication in a piece, though louder dynamics are often specified with additional fs (such as fortississimo – seen below).
Music dynamic fortississimo.svg Fortississimo
Extremely loud. Very infrequently does one see louder dynamics than this, which are specified with additional fs.
Music expression sforzando sfz.svg Sforzando
Literally “forced”, denotes an abrupt, fierce accent on a single sound
or chord. When written out in full, it applies to the sequence of sounds
or chords under or over which it is placed.
Music-crescendo.svg Crescendo
A gradual increase in volume.
Can be extended under many notes to indicate that the volume steadily increases during the passage.
Music-diminuendo.svg Diminuendo
Also decrescendo
A gradual decrease in volume. Can be extended in the same manner as crescendo.

Other commonly used dynamics build upon these values. For example “pianississimo” (represented as ‘ppp meaning so softly as to be almost inaudible, and fortississimo, (‘fff)
meaning extremely loud.
A small “s” in front of the dynamic notations means “subito”, and means
that the dynamic is to be changed to the new notation rapidly. Subito
is commonly used with sforzandos, but all other notations, most commonly
as “sff” (subitofortissimo) or “spp” (subitopianissimo).

Music-forte-piano.png Forte-piano
A section of music in which the music should initially be played loudly (forte), then immediately softly (piano).

Another value that rarely appears is niente, which means ‘nothing’. This may be used at the end of a diminuendo to indicate ‘fade out to nothing’.

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Articulation marks

Articulations (or accents)
specify how individual notes are to be performed within a phrase or
passage. They can be fine-tuned by combining more than one such symbol
over or under a note. They may also appear in conjunction with phrasing
marks listed above.

 

Music-staccato.png Staccato
This indicates that the note is to be played shorter than notated,
usually half the value, the rest of the metric value is then silent.
Staccato marks may appear on notes of any value, shortening their
performed duration without speeding the music itself.
Music-staccatissimo.png Staccatissimo or Spiccato
Indicates a longer silence after the note (as described above), making
the note very short. Usually applied to quarter notes or shorter. (In
the past, this marking’s meaning was more ambiguous: it sometimes was
used interchangeably with staccato, and sometimes indicated an accent
and not staccato. These usages are now almost defunct, but still appear
in some scores.) In string instruments this indicates a bowing technique
in which the bow bounces lightly upon the string.
Music-marcato.png Accent
The note is played louder or with a harder attack than surrounding unaccented notes. May appear on notes of any duration.
Music-tenuto.png Tenuto
This symbol has several meanings: It may indicate that a note be played
for its full value, or slightly longer; it may indicate a slight dynamic
emphasis; or it may indicate a separate attack on a note. It may be
combined with a staccato dot to indicate a slight detachment (“portato” or “mezzo staccato”).
Music-strong-marcato.png Marcato
The note is played somewhat louder or more forcefully than a note with a regular accent mark (open horizontal wedge).
Music-pizzicato.png Left-hand pizzicato or Stopped note
A note on a stringed instrument where the string is plucked with the
left hand (the hand that usually stops the strings) rather than bowed.
On the horn,
this accent indicates a “stopped note” (a note played with the stopping
hand shoved further into the bell of the horn). In percussion notation
this denotes, among many other specific uses, that the hi-hat is to be
closed by pressing the pedal or that an instrument is to be “choked”
(silenced by causing vibrations to cease).
Music-snappizzicato.png Snap pizzicato
On a stringed instrument, a note played by stretching a string away from
the frame of the instrument and letting it go, making it “snap” against
the frame. Also known as a Bartók pizzicato.
Music-harmonic.png Natural harmonic or Open note
On a stringed instrument, denotes that a natural harmonic (also called flageolet)
is to be played. On a valved brass instrument, denotes that the note is
to be played “open” (without lowering any valve, or without mute). In
organ music, this denotes that a pedal note is to be played with the
heel. In percussion notation this denotes, among many other specific
uses, that the hi-hat is to be opened by release of the pedal or that an
instrument is to be allowed to ring.
Music-fermata.png Fermata (Pause)
An indefinitely-sustained note, chord, or rest. Usually appears over all
parts at the same metrical location in a piece, to show a halt in tempo. It can be placed above or below the note.
Music-upbow.png Up bow or Sull’arco
On a bowed string instrument, the note is played while drawing the bow upward. On a plucked string instrument played with a plectrum or pick (such as a guitar played pickstyle or a mandolin), the note is played with an upstroke. In organ notation, this marking indicates to play the pedal note with the toe.
Music-downbow.png Down bow or Giù arco
Like sull’arco, except the bow is drawn downward. On a plucked string instrument played with a plectrum or pick (such as a guitar played pickstyle or a mandolin),
the note is played with a downstroke. Also note in organ notation, this
marking indicates to play the pedal note with the heel.

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